I have always been fascinated by the question: How can for-profit corporations innovate to solve the world’s toughest challenges? My passion for this topic was formed at a very early age. Growing up in India, I realized that the country has too few resources to confront its many challenges; the only way India can hope to solve its problems is through innovation. I therefore committed my professional career to research how to make innovations happen. For instance, I challenged businesses to design a $300 house for the poor.
Recently another seemingly intractable problem — but one that businesses could eradicate — came to my attention. This past winter, I had the distinct honor of meeting activist Kailash Satyarthi, the co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. The occasion was the Tuck Global Leadership 2030 executive education program, which took place in Chennai, India, and Satyarthi was the distinguished guest.
gave a 45-minute heartfelt speech about his decades of work freeing child and adult slave laborers from bondage in Indian mines and factories. Recently, Fortune named Satyarthi one of The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, highlighting his conviction that child labor is as much an economic issue as a human rights one. I couldn’t agree more with this belief. But I would go even further, and humbly suggest that the exploitation of children and adults as slave laborers is a business issue — where suppliers and consumers have and should use their power to apply pressure to violators.
Looking at human rights violations through a business lens opens up a range of solutions one otherwise would not associate with human rights, and causes us to ask an important question: If laws alone can’t protect our children, who or what can? The fact is, when governmental regulations don’t go far enough to keep kids safe, corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children.
When we think of protecting human rights, we tend to think of governments and laws, and the earnest work of the not-for-profit sector. For example, India has one of the most entrenched and insidious networks of child slavery and labor in the world, resulting in untold suffering for millions of minors. To combat this legacy of human rights violations, the Indian Parliament in February introduced an amendment to its Child Labor Act that would ban the employment of kids under the age of 14 for safe work, and under the age of 18 for hazardous work. I applaud this effort and hope it succeeds, but it fails to include the larger business community in the solution to the problem.
One need look no further than tobacco farms in the United States, where laborers as young as 12 are suffering from acute nicotine poisoning, to see that even the most advanced democracies can’t combat child labor by themselves. But the tobacco industry worldwide, in fact, has pledged to do just that. In an historic announcement at the end of last year, a network of some of the world’s biggest tobacco companies jointly agreed to follow international labor law, which prohibits hazardous work by children under 18, and sets a minimum age of 15 for employment. The pledge came from Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, an industry-supported initiative based in Geneva with members such as Phillip Morris, Altria, and British American Tobacco, among many others. Together, they represent a significant percentage of the world’s tobacco supply chain. The pledge has a serious hole — it defers to national regulations on the definition of “hazardous work” — but it is a huge step in the right direction, and one that could only be taken by corporations themselves.
In another stunning example of suppliers and consumers wielding their market power to stop human rights violations, the rug industry has made enormous progress in eradicating child labor from its supply chain, through the GoodWeave Child-Free-Labor Certification. Goodweave, a nonprofit organization founded by Satyarthi in 1994, grants licenses to rug importers and exporters who have signed a contract agreeing to abide by a specific no-child-labor standard. The businesses also agree to allow GoodWeave to randomly inspect manufacturing sites and pay a licensing fee that supports GoodWeave’s monitoring and inspection.
When GoodWeave began its child labor advocacy, 1 million children in South Asia were working in the rug industry, where they were subject to malnutrition, deformity from sitting for long hours in sheds, respiratory diseases from inhaling wool particles, and injuries from using sharp tools. Since then, GoodWeave has certified more than 11 million rugs, and the number of child workers has dropped to 250,000. There is still a long way to go, but GoodWeave continues its mission and is expanding its model to other sectors of the economy.
GoodWeave could never have done this without the support of private enterprises that saw the value of a humane supply chain, and consumers who voted with their dollars for a more just economy. The power of these two groups is arguably greater than that of all nations combined. Make no mistake, governments must continue their work to pass and enforce effective laws that send a clear message that child labor is wrong and will not be tolerated. But at the same time, corporations and consumers must speak loudly by developing a culture of social responsibility — and they can take heart in knowing that it makes a difference.